Alas, poor Fred

FRED, by Posy Simmonds, published 1987

Bookcase 5, shelf 3, book 7

This book is a legend. I love it. I can even recite parts of it, but that’s not surprising: it’s not the longest work in the literary canon. It’s magnificent.

Ahem.

Yet again the dice have given me a children’s book. They keep landing on bookcase 4, shelf 3, and that’s where I have some kids’ books. But they’re not all children’s titles; it’s also where I have my bandes dessinées and Fred resides with those, next to Posy Simmonds’ other books such as Tamara DreweGemma Bovery and the collections of strips she did for the Guardian.

So what – or who, rather – is Fred? Well, if you don’t already know, Fred is a cat. But he’s not just any cat, as becomes evident after his death.

Sophie and Nick, the children to whom Fred ‘belongs’, are very sad about the death of their beloved pet.

He didn’t do much (he liked sleeping, as you may have gathered), but they loved him deeply, and most of the people they tell think of him fondly too: ‘He used to sleep on my dustbin’, ‘We’ll miss him, he used to sleep on our wall…’

But then night comes, and Sophie is awakened by a strange noise outside. Not surprisingly, she is so astonished by what she sees that she wakes her brother and drags him into the garden. Well, it’s not every day you see a cat in a top hat, and one that looks normal – in as much as that is possible. It’s Mrs Spedding’s Ginger, in fact, dressed like a Victorian undertaker.

Sophie approaches. ‘Puss… puss… ‘ and is immediately rebuffed: ‘I BEG YOUR PARDON!’ This is not a world in which you talk down to cats, because they talk back.

Especially this night.

It is, you see, Fred’s funeral. That’s his proper funeral, not the one the family had earlier, the one where they buried him underneath the buddleia and Sophie made a little paper gravestone with ‘Fred’ written on it. That was hopelessly inadequate. Because Fred, it transpires, was a rock star.

Posy Simmonds once described him as the ‘Roy Orbison of the car world’. (His band, incidentally, are The Heavy Saucers.)

A large crowd of mourners, including two dogs and three mice as well as the two humans, gather for the ceremony. Most carry flowers, some clutch laurel wreathes, a sniffling kitten holds an album sleeve. Everyone joins in the funeral song (‘Meeeow! Meooooo! O Caterwauley wailey-woe!) and, one by one, they lie flowers on the grave. Sophie and Nick don’t have anything, so they contribute – Sophie makes Nick contribute, that is – Nick’s ‘special wabbit’, his soft toy.

And then they all go off to the funeral tea in the dustbins, it being the eve of rubbish day, taking a short cut through the children’s house. The celebrations are beautifully drawn, as is everything, with meticulous attention to detail – the teddy-boy cats in brothel creepers, a couple of mice in leather jackets (while I’m on details, the endpapers are worth looking at, too). All drawn, of course, with Posy Simmonds’ wit and touch, which avoids the twee, the sentimental and the cloying. Completely.

The noise of the wake brings an inevitable end to the ceremony as it wakes up the street (‘Oh, those blessed cats!’, ‘What an unholy din!’, Here, I’ve got a saucepan of water…’). The cats disappear and the children trail back to bed.

And in the morning? It’s all very odd. There’s a trail of muddy paw prints through the house. The daisies have all been picked. Nick’s rabbit is in the garden – and Sophie’s improvised grave marker has been replaced.

(The observant will notice, looking back at the scene, a ginger cat walking away along the wall. Mrs Spedding’s Ginger, no doubt.)

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